Public health officials have been trying to get more women to take folic acid before and during pregnancy to reduce their risk of having a child with a neurological disorder. However, a new study has found that too much folic acid and vitamin B12 may actually be linked with an increased risk of autism.
The study comes from M. Daniele Fallin and other researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. The researchers released their findings May 11th in a press release before presenting their findings May 13th at the 2016 International Meeting for Autism Research in Baltimore.
The researchers studied data from 1,391 mothers and their children from the Boston Birth Cohort study, which followed the women from their child’s birth to several years later, between 1998 and 2013. The study participants were mainly from low-income families and in a minority population. The study involved checking folate levels in the mother’s blood one to three days after delivering their baby.
The blood showed that about ten percent of the women in the study had more than 59 nanomoles per liter of folate, which is considered an excess amount. About six percent of the women had more than 600 picomoles per liter of vitamin B12 in their blood, also considered an excess amount. Although nobody has yet established how much B12 women should have in their system while pregnant, the World Health Organization says women in their first trimester of pregnancy should have between 13.5 and 45.3 nanomoles per liter of folate in their blood.
When the researchers compared folate and B12 levels to the child’s risk of developing autism later on, they found a possible link. When a woman had more than four times the recommended amount of folate in her blood after giving birth, her child had double the risk of being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The women in the study with the highest levels of B12 in their blood after birth had triple the risk of having a child later diagnosed with autism. High levels of both folate and B12 after birth increased the risk by 17.6 times that the child would have autism.
Folate is a B vitamin found in fruits and vegetables, but the synthetic version called folic acid is added to cereals, beads, and vitamin supplements in North America for its health benefits. Most of the mothers studied had taken multivitamins while pregnant, boosting their folic acid and vitamin B12 levels. The researchers are not sure if the women with high levels in their blood took too many supplements, ate too many foods containing these vitamins, or were for some reason absorbing more folate or metabolizing it slower.
Although the research seems to show a link between more folate and B12 in the blood and an increased risk of autism, others urge caution when interpreting the study results. The study does not show that it is necessarily the high levels of folate and B12 increasing the autism risk or if something else is at work. As well, the study involves preliminary results that have not yet been peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal.
The research suggests that women should be cautious about taking too many vitamins and supplements during pregnancy. The researchers say that more research is needed to find the optimum amount of folic acid and vitamin B12 women should take to have a healthy baby.
Currently, public health officials recommend that women who are pregnant or could possibly become pregnant should take folic acid supplements. Folate is essential for cell growth and promotes neurodevelopmental growth, and previous research has linked a folate deficiency in early pregnancy with an increased risk of neurological birth defects, such as spina bifida, anencephaly, and encephalocele, as well as autism spectrum disorder. Although women are urged to take in plenty of folate while pregnant, some are still not getting enough or their bodies are not absorbing it properly, putting their child’s health at risk. As essential as this vitamin is for health, the current research suggests that high levels of folate could be too much of a good thing, and better guidelines and monitoring of folate levels during pregnancy may be needed to give the child the best health outcome.